Skip to main

Managing Downtime

The end of the semester is an ambiguous period for students. While it comes with a heightened stress due to final exams and papers, it also comes with some anticipation that some much-needed “downtime” is just around the corner. For graduate students, the “downtime” of the semester break isn’t the same as it was during the undergraduate years. Graduate students do get to celebrate the end of a few courses, but unlike undergraduates, the end of the semester does not mean an end of a to-do list. You still have research projects you’re working on, and whether it’s in a lab or a library, the down-time is often more accurately described as a “slow-down time” with fewer demands rather than free time with no demands.

Even though your semester break often does come with demands, it is still a good time to take advantage of the time to take an inventory of the many dimensions of your life, several of which have been placed aside since you began graduate school. If you’re like many graduate students, if not most of them, you’ve had moments when you wondered if your decision to start graduate school was the right one. The time and energy it takes to get all the reading done, the papers written, the lab work completed, and the myriad other demands from your assistantships and research projects take you so far away from the other areas of your life, that it’s a perfectly rational question whether this was a good idea. Chances are, it was a good idea, but it may still be important to revisit the question with more intentionality so that you return in January to a new semester with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose.

One way to approach this clarifying process is to think of your life in terms of a triad: your career, your relationships, and your personal sense of Self. Each of these has a world of complexity and each of these is also intricately tied to the other—with all of the combined complexity. During the academic year, you likely spend some time in committee meetings toward your professional goals. Imagine spending some of the semester break in different committee meetings, with your Career, your Relationships, and your Self as the guiding agenda.

In your discussion with the different elements of your Career, be sure to revisit questions about what is meaningful about the work you’re engaged in and the work this will likely lead to after you leave Duke. The vast majority of you will leave after successfully completing your programs and earning your degrees, and a few of you will leave after successfully changing your path and earning the clarity of your new direction. Consider the ingredients that will inform whichever direction you choose: the kind of salary you are likely to earn, the nature of the work setting you’re likely to spend your working hours in, the level of variety involved in your daily tasks, the degree of autonomy you’re likely to possess, and the intensity of demands you’re likely to face are all worthy agenda items in the Career Committee of your semester break ponderings.

In your discussions with yourself about the Relationships dimension of your life be sure to devote time to remembering and discovering the role that others play in your life. Having a sense of purpose regarding romantic partners (especially spouses or potential life-partners) and what kinds of collaborations in Life building you want to pursue is central. Equally important is a review of what role Friendships are to play in the larger picture of your life, including assessing how well tended the existing gardens of friendships that you already have are. Are there some you want to enrich and deepen and are there some you find yourself surrendering to the earlier chapters of your life as you evolve in new directions. How has the family from which you emerged assumed a role in your life and in what manner do you wish to allocate some of your life-space to it.

Finally, who are you as a person, and what comprises the essences of your Self? What are your interests and your passions, and how much voice do they have in the life you are living? It’s also important to attend to the fears and wounds that you’ve accumulated to this point in your life and allow them a fair amount of influence in who you are becoming. Particularly important to honor are the ways in which you express what is most meaningful to you, whether through some artistic expression (such as through music or in dance or on canvas) or other endeavors such as gardening, building new things, or fixing broken things.

To be a graduate student is to, in most ways, focus in on a narrowed scope of interest. To be on a semester break can be an invitation to widen the lens to remind you of the personhood that began this journey. Allow these committees to be an enjoyable if not poignant part of your break, remembering to have the members of this triad of life-dimensions converse with each other. Spend some time in courageous conversation with your different life dimensions….but only some time. Don’t forget to simply rest some, too.